Island of Salvation
A Sitter for a Satyr
The Ice Age
Postwar Polish Poetry
If there is one quality which holds this collection of novels together it is, with one exception, a certain lack of distinction. In a way, it is consoling to know that the same old humdrum sensibilities tick away in fiction on either side of the iron curtain, that mediocrity in the East is essentially no different from mediocrity in the West, that things are as gloomy and evasions as commonplace there as here. The only miracle is that, judging from the blurbs and dust-jackets, these novels have been taken so seriously west of the border; I suppose it is a sign of the cultural détente.
Julian Semyonov’s Petrovka 38, for instance, is labeled “the first thriller out of Russia” and comes armed with puffs from the British pop press. It is, in fact, simply a leaden-footed cops-and-robbers set in modern Moscow: a group of dogged policemen, beset by overwork and harassing marriages, versus a couple of young hoodlums and their elderly master-mind. The cops are all good guys, though some of their colleagues are not and they often find themselves curiously unpopular with the general public. Conversely, the robbers are all bad guys, with the exception of a mixed-up young poet who gets in on the act by mistake; the strong-arm man is one of the new-style hooligans, all sex and smart clothes; his mentor is the spolled son of a late side-kick of Beria’s; the master-mind is a dope-peddling sadist with counter-revolutionary tendencies. Politically, it is all very convenient. The book does shed a little light on the bonedom of the young generation and their rather earnest pursuit of delinquency; it also offers some mild criticism of the rigidity of Soviet mores and the official reluctance to allow the young to be young. Otherwise, it seems that new stilyag is but old hero writ large.
Wlodzimierz Odojewski’s Island of Salvation is equally insipid, though in a different, more tiresome way. It is one of those sensitive studies of adolescence in a world turned upside down. In 1942 a young man, teetering on the edge of his virginity, goes back to his grandparents’ country house in Eastern Poland. The Soviets have been through, the Nazis are in, and the local Ukranian terrorists are on the rampage. You would scarcely guess it, for nothing really shakes the calm of that old aristocratic mansion, overgrown with wisteria and sensibility. The servants remain obsequious and the decorum impeccable, though something nasty has happened in the orangery and the terrorist leader turns out to be the hero’s bastard half-brother. Perhaps it is all supposed to be an allegory of the responsibility of the old Polish gentry for the horrors that befell their country. Or perhaps it is simply a vast nostalgia for a Poland that is dead, dead as Nabokov’s Russia. Either way, it is hard to tell, since Odojewski’s sub-Proustian sentences ramble like the shrubbery in his grandfather’s park.
George Andrzeyevski’s A Sitter for a Satyr is a far more satisfying and talented exercise in sophistication. It moves back and forth among the characters assembling for an exclusive Paris vernissage. At the center is the old master himself, Spanish peasant, world genius, great lover, and consummate politician, who has broken his three years’ seclusion to celebrate, in a series of masterpieces, his latest, and very young, mistress. Around him swarm critics, journalists, aristocrats, millionaires, dealers, queers, film stars, directors, and resentful younger painters. Andrzeyevski writes as though for the movies—thereby, perhaps, saving himself trouble later—cutting from one figure to another, from present to flashback, from closeup to long-shot. It is a considerable, and largely successful, show of brilliance, witty, malicious, but with one major failing: the debilitating undercurrent of intense sentimental love. Despite all its tense sophistication, it ends, depressingly, with a sob. Yet perhaps the romanticism goes deeper. The Poles have always regarded themselves as the French of Eastern Europe. Certainly. A Sitter for a Satyr is more French than any French novel I have ever read. Andrzeyevski seems to be engaged in a loving re-creation of a city he is mad about. The geography of every walk or drive in Paris is scrupulously mapped; every alley-way, back-double, and cafe gets its right name; Joyce was scarcely more meticulous with Dublin. No doubt, this is partly a display of the author’s knowingness, matching his knowing portraits of his sophisticated characters. Yet it begins to seem a gratuitous obsession, as though the secondary theme of the novel were the love-affair between the author and Paris. It is in the end, despite all the panache, rather pathetic, an unconscious reminder of the gulf that still yawns between Eastern and Western Europe.
These novels have one quality in common: in their different ways, they are all works of romantic evasion. In contrast, Valeriy Tarsis and Tamas Aczel are both concerned with realities: not the realities of social realism, but the realities of socialist bureaucracy. Tarsis’s Ward 7, in fact, is so preoccupied with them that it neglects entirely to be a novel; it is an autobiographical document, a tract, a polemic; I found it a great disappointment. Two months before his collection of short stories, The Bluebottle, was published pseudonymously in England, Tarsis, who had made no secret of the book in Russia, was arrested and locked up in a mental hospital in Moscow. That was in August, 1962. The following February the Western press began to agitate about him; he was released the next month. In the light of the claim that, since Khrushchev’s amnesty, there are no political prisoners in Russia, the affair was insultingly hypocritical. Although Tarsis was not badly treated—apart from being dulled by a daily ration of crude sedatives, which was the only therapy the patients received—the indignity and falseness of the procedure outraged him to the point of desperation. Ward 7 is written out of this exacerbation. It turns out to be more of a handicap than Tarsis can cope with.
Though his title is a direct reference to Chekhov’s Ward 6, the two stories have nothing in common, except the belief that the only same people left in Russian society are in lunatic asylums. Where Chekhov’s masterpiece has the clarity, control, and impersonal order of a great work of art, Tarsis’s story is haphazard, undeveloped, personal. In spirit it is close to Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground, but it lacks the cleverness behind the hysteria and the sense of inevitability with which Dostoevsky cunningly leads up to his great final denunciation. Ward 7 is like a slice of life as it is: disorganized, painful, and leading nowhere in particular. Granted, Tarsis has written this as fiction to protect people still in the hospital; the book is a polemic by a man who has been intolerably treated, who reacted bravely and is now writing out of desperation—desperate, perhaps, for martyrdom. Yet that is finally no excuse. Even as a polemic against the corruption of Russian morality and law the book misfires. Compared with Dr. Zhivago or One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich there is a kind of childish petulance in Tarsis’s writing that takes away from his anger, his suffering, even his insights. It is a frightening document, but one without dignity. It is, finally, less a denunciation of injustice than a shrill neighborhood row.
Tarsis has a secondary theme, apart from his own despair; he sums it up with a phrase of Merezhkovsky’s—“the advent of the boor.” Russia, he means, has been handed over to the bureaucrats, the fourth-raters, manipulators, the red-tape and brown-nose boys. Since he, like other gifted Russians, is a man of great spiritual patriotism, this offends and depresses him. It also presents him with a problem in artistic procedure: though the bureaucrats control his life, he can’t ever get through to them; they are not open to his kind of understanding, or even his kind of attack. And he himself is too obsessed, or perhaps too limited an artist to write in a way that might hurt them through their indifference and stupidity. This is precisely what Tamas Aczel has managed in The Ice Age. Admittedly, Aczel has two major advantages beyond an excellent translation: before the Rakosi terror intensified he had been high up in the Hungarian Communist party; and he left the country in 1956. So he can not only write what he likes, he also knows from the inside the intricacies of power politics. In addition, he is not encumbered with Russian idealism. Like many other Hungarian intellectuals, he functions on the principle of utter cynicism: a cynicism, that is, not merely of social policy, but a quality affecting his whole being—“Everybody is crooked; everybody has his ulterior motives; and I myself am worst of all.” There is not a jot of breast-beating or shame involved. In The Ice Age everyone, with a couple of unconvincing exceptions, is devious, calculating and mostly corrupt. Since the book describes the frantic embarrassment of the staff of a hospital and a government office which follows the arrest of an eminent professor of medicine, the duplicity makes good sense of the Hungarian political scene in the bad old days. (It may be so still; my own impression is that things are perhaps less vicious and oppressive now, but they are in no way more pure-minded.) It also makes sense as an artistic procedure for this kind of subject. Tarsis’s mistake was to write about bureaucratic totalitarianism with revolutionary passion. Aczel has no such illusions. He knows that once the zombies have taken over, their blankness and cynicism can be outwitted only by greater cynicism and irony. They are vulnerable not because they are human but because they are stupid. So he writes about them with distaste and high style. The book is based almost entirely on contempt, contempt working through a native Hungarian flair for elaborate, malicious gossip, and subtly qualified by his shrewd insights into the power game as it is played. Though the end of the book is somewhat cursory, as though Aczel had suddenly grown bored, the book on the whole is an impressive, sourly amusing, and remarkably incisive work.
Yet it is curious how programmatic and oversimplified these prose works seem in comparison with the collection, Post-War Polish Poetry. All the themes and tensions which the novelists painstakingly set out one after the other seem effortlessly implied in the best work in Czeslaw Milosz’s excellent anthology. The Poles, with their two hundred years experience of occupation, have a genius for independence of mind in intolerable circumstances. Every feeling, every gesture, every word, however personal, has its political resonance. Hence, their best poets—Milosz himself, Rozewicz, Karpowicz, and, above all, Zbigniew Herbert, who seems to me one of the finest poets in Europe—have perfected styles in which the most intimate subject matter seems to flicker at every point with a kind of political tension. They are great ironists, detached, tensely intelligent, and yet continually open to feelings, rejecting nothing and submitting everything that comes along to a double pressure: at once to understand it, and to assimilate it into their own unique contexts. It is an extraordinary achievement, and Professor Milosz’s translations are correspondingly impeccable.